“A fire burns before them, and behind them a flame burns.” So warns the prophet Joel of its impending judgment upon his wayward nation. In a different sense, the words can be said of Joel himself and the other minor prophets.
Their words burn away the dry, deadness of half-hearted religion. Their words spark a pure, spiritual fire in the heart of God’s people. Some of the richest and most poetic portions of the Old Testament are on the pages of the minor prophets. Unfortunately, many preachers are overlooking these books. Even the more accessible prophets like Micah and Amos seem to fall by the wayside in our preaching.
Jonah usually gets his due because of his amazing story, but why do we neglect the other minor prophets? The themes of these great works are essential to the Christian message and as potent as ever. What’s the secret to turning the Bible’s fiery prophets loose in our congregations today?
As a pastor I often turn to the more familiar or prosaic portions of the Old Testament and New Testament for sermon texts. I know I must be true to the Word of God and preach sermons from the entire Bible, but those minor prophets are hard to preach, right? Well, to my delight, I have found in them some of the richest sources of sermon material. Yet it took some trial and error to become effective in preaching from these magnificent books. Along the way I discovered some practical steps the preacher can follow to turn the words of the prophets into powerful, contemporary sermons.
Gather the Kindling
One of the most enjoyable aspects of our family camping trips is sitting around a blazing campfire. After setting up camp, we gather kindling and logs for our campfire. We scour the woods for those twigs and sticks to get the fire going. If we don’t do a good job gathering wood for our fire, we’re disappointed later when we have to leave camp in the dark to find more fuel for the fire. The reward of hard work comes later when we relax in the warmth and light of the fire.
Studying the historical backgrounds of the minor prophets is like gathering the kindling for the fire. It is hard work, and it takes time, yet the historical background is essential for effective preaching from the minor prophets. Recognizing the historical period of the prophet grounds the sermon in the history of the text and makes a more accurate exegesis and application possible. The time we spend discovering the historical kindling will be rewarded when the message of the prophets sets a fire in the hearts of our congregation. But what do we look for in our historical study of the minor prophets?
First, find the prophets in the context of Israel’s chronology. The prophets all preached during times of change in the nation’s history. Discover the backgrounds of the Assyrian threat to Israel, the Babylonian threat to Judah and the restoration of Israel under the Medo-Persians. Consider the whole society as you study. Ask yourself, “How would Israel and Judah’s economy, national defense and government be affected by these threats and transitions?” or “How would these events impact the families in Israel?”
Second, match the Bible’s historical books to the prophets. The historical books of the Bible provide a general overview of the times in which the minor prophets lived. Look for the chronology of the kings of Israel. Locate the other prophets who were contemporaries of the minor prophets.
Finally, use inductive research from the texts themselves. Reading the texts of the minor prophets gives a good sense of the milieu in which they were living. Ask, “What may have been happening for the prophet to say that?” We must use some caution in drawing our conclusions this way. However, if we check our findings against reliable historical resources, we can get a feel of the historical environment in which the prophets were preaching. This historical background allows the preacher to find connections between the prophet’s society and contemporary society.
See the Sparks
As our campfire begins to dim, we stoke the fire to set it ablaze again. When it is stoked, the sparks swirl upward. Focusing on a single spark from the fire, though, ignores the beauty of the whole scene. So many rise. The beauty of the sparks comes in seeing them together rising from the fire into the night sky. Similarly, focusing on one single text of the minor prophets, while ignoring similar passages throughout the same book, misses the beauty and force of the prophet’s message.
Preaching a series of sermons from the books of the minor prophets has some advantages. First, preaching a series of thematic sermons helps join the recurring themes together powerfully. Also, the historical background work can be time consuming, so it makes sense to get more sermons out of that time of study. Further, the twelve prophets tend to be much more rhythmical in theme than either the gospels or epistles. Those New Testament works have prominent themes, yet the minor prophets often preached in a cyclical pattern-returning over and over to several important motifs, each time heightening the force of their message.
Tapping these recurring ideas can help the preacher organize sermons from the minor prophets. Because various themes present themselves in each book at many different places, preach through a book of the minor prophets thematically rather than a verse or passage at a time. A series of sermons addressing themes found in several passages rather than one isolated text produces better exegetical preaching than verse by verse sermons could.
Hosea, for example, contrasts themes of Israel’s unfaithfulness and immorality with God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy. The narrative of Hosea’s marriage and children begins those themes in the first three chapters, giving dramatic force to his later message. Pronouncements of judgment and indictments of Israel’s sins mark chapters four and five, seven, eight, nine and twelve: “For a spirit of harlotry has led them astray…” (Hosea 4:12). An invitation for repentance characterizes chapters six, fourteen and parts of other chapters: “Come, let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us” (Hosea 6:1).
This pattern — sins, judgment and mercy — reinforced by the prophet’s own experience makes preaching straight through the text difficult and redundant. A thematic approach can take up the various aspects of the prophets’ message in a more unified manner for the congregation.
Feel the Fire
Seeing a campfire from a distance is nice; the beauty of the flames and sparks is pleasing, but cold bodies don’t benefit from the fire until we move closer. The campfire serves us best when we can feel it warming us. Likewise, the message of the minor prophets can easily be appreciated simply for its poetic force or creativity but fail to connect with the congregation. We must bring our congregation near enough to these prophetic fires to warm chilled hearts. We do that by connecting the strong emotion of the prophet and his audience to those sitting in the pews.
One of the strongest elements of the minor prophets is their passion. Find the emotion these prophets were expressing. Discover what may have kindled that emotion. What was the emotional response of the original audience to their sermon? What sparks similar emotions in you and your congregation? Once that connection has been discovered, the bridge is lowered to bring the prophets across into our churches.
Hosea, as an example, is full of emotional connecting points for contemporary hearers. Who in our congregations is not familiar with someone affected by the heartbreak of an unfaithful spouse? Divorce is a heartwrenching reality for many. That sense of despair and heartache is what the prophet expressed as the feeling of God over His wayward people, “They have dealt treacherously against the Lord, for they have borne illegitimate children” (Hosea 5:7).
Similarly, who doesn’t know of a wayward child who has ignored the devotion and love of his parents? God knows the feeling of those spurned parents as Hosea’s words indicate, “Yet it is I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in My arms; But they did not know that I healed them” (Hosea 11:3).
A contemporary story expressing an emotion similar to that of the prophet’s message can help the congregation connect with the text and will open their hearts to hear. In the examples above, an introduction highlighting a wayward child or spouse could bring emotional credibility to the sermon. Not that the sermon should become overly emotional or coercive, but the congregation must get near enough to feel the passionate fire of the text. Preachers are good at explaining the simple meaning of a text, but we must also learn to express the connotative meaning of the prophets to bring them forcefully into our congregations.
Light the Lamp
Campfires provide some light; but because they are on the ground, they don’t give the best lighting for the entire camp site. That’s why we bring lanterns to provide light throughout the camp. Similarly, the minor prophets preach fiery messages, but they sometimes are so unfamiliar that the congregation can’t see their full light. That’s why, as preachers, we need to light some more familiar lamps near the end of our sermons from the minor prophets. That lantern is Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels.
Sermons must draw the congregation ultimately to Christ. The words of Jesus illuminate the minor prophets’ message. Our congregations are much more familiar with the sayings of Jesus than, for example, Obadiah or Habakkuk. Turning in the end of the sermon to the more familiar phrasing of the Gospels will link the message of the prophet — who is often obscure in the minds of the congregation – to the message of Jesus.
Paralleling the words of Hosea, Nahum or other prophets to those of Jesus can produce powerful sermon conclusions. This is because nearly every theme enunciated by the minor prophets is reflected in the life and ministry of Christ. Calls for repentance, seeking God, social justice, faithfulness, and the kingdom of God ring both from the mouth of these prophets and from our Lord. Warnings of judgment and strains of compassion sound from the prophets and from the Savior.
A sermon focusing upon Hosea’s theme of returning to the Lord could conclude with the parallel message of Jesus, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Matthew 3:2) or more personally “Come to Me all, who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). A sermon on God’s patient longing for the wayward nation’s return may conclude with Jesus’ lament, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matthew 23:37). By illuminating the prophets with these more familiar texts, you give the congregation a stronger sense of understanding and identification.
Release the Fire
Study and preaching time invested in the minor prophets can have great dividends for a preacher and his congregation. To structure a sermon from these books begin with a story that is the contemporary emotional equivalent to your text. Draw parallels for the congregation in the historical situation and contemporary events, then explain a single, focused theme. Conclude by drawing the prophets’ words alongside those of the Savior. Using this general outline can help loose the fire of the prophets in the hearts of your congregation.

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